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What does the Bible say about Humor?

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Question:   Does the Bible refer to humor, comedy, laughing, in any way? Are these things really just a worldly concoction to distract us or is there a legitimate basis for humor in the Church? It may just really be a silly question but I have always wondered about it.

Your website is my homepage and I read something from it daily. I have also downloaded all the materials and printed most of them for study guidance and reading away from the computer. For me, and I expect for many others, your studies are very unique and so desperately needed. Your devotion to Jesus Christ in all dimensions of your studies is truly a blessed relief. I know that kind words about your studies are appreciated but I can tell that one's individual study, prayer and growth is what you wish most for those that read your studies. I am on my way to doing just that.

Again thank you. I will remember you in my prayers.

Response :  I can't tell you how much I appreciate your attitude, your spirit, and your commitment to our Lord and His Word. Indeed, the whole point of this ministry is contribute to the spiritual growth of the Church of Jesus Christ, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to learn that these studies have been helpful in that regard. I also do appreciate your supportive comments - and your prayers most of all. I will try to be worthy of them.

As to your question, it is not silly at all. At Ephesians 5:4, Paul tells us to avoid "obscenity, foolish talk or coarse jesting - things that have no place [among you]". This reference to "course jesting" is about the closest thing I know of in scripture dealing with the subject of humor. But it would be hard to make this verse into a blanket denunciation of humor. For it is very clear from Ephesians 5:4 what most definitively should be avoided, namely, anything that has any sexual or scatological content whatsoever. The word translated "coarse jesting" is the Greek eutrapelia, etymologically suggesting a "well-turned remark", but in secular Greek specifically referring to off-color humor of the sort well known from Greek old comedy. The word also covers extreme buffoonery of every sort, and sometimes has somewhat broader connotations as well, i.e., urbanity, facetiousness, using witticisms, etc., all of which are consistent with humor that has an extreme "edge" of the type that runs afoul of a truly sanctified Christian walk. This impression is strengthened by the two words which precede it, namely "obscenity" and "foolish talk". The first word is clear enough as to the type of language being prohibited - we are to avoid talk (and humor) which is obscene in any way. The second also defines the sort of humor forbidden in the word eutrapelia as any behavior, language, or narrative that would characterize us as "acting like buffoons" (and playing the fool is something always frowned upon by scripture generally: e.g., Prov.10:10 and passim in Proverbs).

So it is not possible to say on the basis of the one clear scriptural reference that all humor is sinful or anti-God. I have tried to make the point elsewhere that scripture never commends human cultural activities (apart from the divinely ordained elements of the Mosaic rites). One reason for this in my opinion is that all art and culture inevitably includes some mimesis of reality - and as those who walk in the light of the true invisible reality we believe in with all our hearts, taking excessive pleasure in celebrating the marred reality visible to the eyes is, at least to some degree, heading in the wrong direction (especially when this is done through artistic means wherein that reality has inevitably been distorted). After all, we are not to love the world (Jas.4:4; 1Jn.2:15-17; cf. Lk.9:23-25).

Humor seems to me to fall into this category. Things are "funny" because they (falsely) represent the realities we see in some surprising, shocking, or unexpected way. Often situations are rendered "funny" by literally "making fun" of someone. Having a joke at someone else's expense is clearly not a Christian thing to do (even if one avoids the clear restrictions of Eph.5:4 in doing so). If we eliminate everything sexual, everything scatological, everything snide and hurtful, we eliminate much of what passes for humor nowadays. Even though it is generally not directed at actual persons, situation comedy is also questionable because we are supposed to take pleasure in the tight scrapes and misfortunes of the characters we watch.

One has to be a bit careful here, of course. We are living in the world, after all. We are not supposed to go out of it. It would be very difficult in our modern hi-tech society to isolate ourselves completely from such influences without becoming hermits (something we are definitely not supposed to become: 1Cor.5:10). I think that the closer we get to Jesus, the easier these sorts of things become to see and discern. We are not perfect, and there is always room for improvement. How can we live in a sanctified way, pursue ever greater sanctification, and yet not be overly legalistic and condemnatory about things the world takes as such a basic part of life (and without leaving the world altogether)? The answer, I believe, is to continue to pursue Jesus Christ day by day and step by step through the diligent and persistent embracing of His Word - to hear it, to know it, to believe it, to live it. The more committed we become, and the closer to Him we are, the more we lend ourselves to the Spirit to guide us through any and all situations, many if not most of which are subtle and require a deep grounding in truth to navigate correctly.

I know of no instance where our Lord used humor. This is not a decisive argument to say that all humor at all times is always sinful (I am relatively sure that such is not the case). But it does show that, if our lives were as single-mindedly dedicated to carrying out the Father's plan for us as His was, seriousness rather than playfulness would characterize them. On the other hand, I also get no sense from scripture that our Lord was ever gloomy, or sullen, or hyper-serious to the point of being a "kill-joy". Despite the fact that He was bearing a burden greater than any of us can truly comprehend, He always remained in "good humor", even if He didn't make jokes.

Now for a personal confession. Although I generally refrain from the use of humor in these Bible studies, I do use it in my personal life and in my secular teaching. In doing so, it is certainly my goal to avoid the sinful extremes discussed above and any suggestion of impropriety. I have found, however, that a well placed light remark can raise a spirit, encourage a person, re-focus a class, and be otherwise "medicinal", and I have in mind two of my old seminary professors as examples of persons who used humor in what I would consider to be a sanctified way.

Jesus told us that though we weep now, we shall "laugh" on the day when all our sorrows melt away into the new reality of the resurrection and the advent of the Kingdom (Lk.6:21). I do see the humor in this: the world has one expectation, and the devil has a vain hope of victory, but, in the end, God has a new reality for us that will completely replace all the fears and tears of this world with joy and laughter unsurpassed forevermore. I am not sure if this is "funny", but it is surely blessed.

Please see also "Is Being Facetious a Sin?"

You might also find the following links on cultural issues regarding Christian behavior to be of some interest:

Culture and Christianity I.

Culture and Christianity II.

Christianity versus Contemporary Kitsch.

Graven Images:  What does the Bible say about art?

Christian Music

Influence of Christian Music

Aspects of Christian Music

Yours in Him who is our joy and laughter forevermore, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

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